India is getting a new car. Last week, on January 10, Tata Motors’ Nano was launched at the New Delhi Auto Expo. The difference between the elaborate launch and the car itself could not have been greater. The launch was sci-fi, ultra sleek and modern, with the chairman Ratan Tata taking a leaf out of Star Wars and beaming himself, Princess Leah-like, in a three-dimensional hologram. The 624cc car, designed for a family of four, is modest and budget priced–a mere $2500, lacking air-conditioning and power steering. And so India again shows how it is the master of extremes, a circus of disparities.
The cheap, easy method of producing and acquiring a car on this scale is a veritable minefield. Environmentalists are in a muddle; car competitors are wondering how to respond.
Another actually-existing spectacle is also terrifying: the Indian family on scooter, a sheer mangle of feet and hands that defies physics. Ratan Tata spoke of this, even as Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra played in the background of the car’s launch. (One assumes this, because journalists report ‘theme’ music from 2001: A Space Odyssey.) ‘I observed families riding on two-wheelers–the father driving the scooter, his young kid standing in front of him, his wife seated behind him, holding a little baby.’
The same spectacle can be seen across Southeast Asia. Tata’s Nano has the potential of going global, which is something that terrifies its previously smug competitors while sending a chill through the environmental movement.
Cars are symbols of prestige, and ensure much chest thumping from political backers. The machismo behind the vehicle industry was evident when a rather spare-framed, bespectacled Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia announced his car production plan in the 1980s. The Proton Saga was a miracle of sorts–critics did not think Malaysians could ever assemble anything quite so ambitious. The villager turned technician was a transformation that still ranks as a miracle of Southeast Asia.
From 1959 we had Britain’s iconic two-door Mini, and the Trabant of the German Democratic Republic, with its famed two-stroke engine. The problem with the ‘Trabi’, aside from its murderous environmental qualities, was its inaccessibility. Orders for it took years to process. The proletarian drivers behind the Iron Curtain needed to be patient before getting behind one.
The Volkswagen, the first ‘people’s vehicle’, was more accessible than the Trabant, but it was built on promises of a Thousand Year emporium that lasted a mere thirteen. Volkswagen lasted longer, and had the last laugh on the Trabi–its Polo engine replaced the two-stroke in the dying days of the GDR.
The Nano is not so much an organ of the worker, but symbol of the bourgeois: the interest with it is a middleclass obsession. Such obsessions come at an inevitable cost, the price of what Ratan Tata calls ‘connectivity’.
Such cars as the Trabi and the Mini were creations of a less environmentally conscious time. Now carbon footprints are examined with microscopic intensity. Government grants are dished out to examine how feasible it is for states to pollute less while consuming more. ‘People’s Car’ is a term that should be obsolete, yet reads like writing on the wall of the global environmental movement. Gone are suggestions of improved public transport, despite the odd voice in India suggesting mass taxation on cars to assist upgrades.
The story behind the Tata has not been smooth. The measure to acquire land for Tata Motors at Singur in West Bengal created a storm. Protesters were not enchanted by the company’s visions of a mobile India, seeing this as a theft against farmers. One activist, Medha Pakar, went so far as to liken the confiscation of land for the car project as morally equivalent to the American-led invasion of Iraq.
As Chairman Tata was beamed in hologram, the Nano was being burned in effigy by the Trinamool Congress from West Bengal. Spokesperson Partha Chatterjee was unrelenting in opposition: ‘Until farmers get back their land forcibly acquired for the Tata Motors small car plant at Singur, we will not allow the company to manufacture cars there.’ The fight is on, though it may be a losing one.
India, in its quest to become connected, modern and mobile, needs this vehicle. Or so claim the likes of Tata Motors. But the company line that this car will link rural areas is simply another way of making the brand sound more socially responsible. In truth, India’s ever-hungry ‘middle class’ is to be found elsewhere. For them, the farmers at Singur are just a hologram, and climate change as authentic as Star Wars.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He can be reached at email@example.com